Are remakes a sign of creative bankruptcy? Does the current glut of remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, re-toolings, nominal prequels and barely connected sequels in production indicate that Hollywood is out of ideas? And anyway, remakes are just cynical ways to cash in on the existing mental real estate of the movie-going public, right? Well, wrong. Remakes have been around nearly as long as Hollywood itself, and not always for the reasons or with the results you’d think. Spectrum Culture’s new feature Re-Make/Re-Model will examine the long history of cinematic remakes, the good movies turned great, the bad ideas turned worse and the weird ones turned boring.
For our first installment: The Fly.
The original 1958 film has achieved a far greater cultural saturation than its origins in a pulpy science fiction story by George Langelaan could have ever predicted, even with the presence of horror-meister Vincent Price (after all, the man was in over 100 movies and many of those aren’t even half-remembered). You can squeal out “HELP MEEEE! HELP MEEEE!” in pretty much any social environment in which it would be considered appropriate (feel free to test it out if you’re not sure if it is) and find the reference instantly recognized by at least the nerds. Not bad for a 54 year old movie about a guy with a fly’s head. And true, it was a box office hit at the time, written for the screen by a pre-Shōgun James Clavell and directed by Kurt Neumann, a German-born specialist in science fiction films who died shortly before the premiere of the movie. But, nonetheless, it is a effort very much of its era, just barely rescued from B-movie status by a few indelible, grotesque images. A pair of increasingly indifferent sequels followed, but without a cultural resurgence 30 years later, it probably would have been relegated to the video bins along with Kronos and Rocketship X-M.
The 1986 remake, however, is a different kind of beast. Helmed by Canadian director David Cronenberg, this version of The Fly is a strange movie by any standards, let alone the brief window in the 1980s in which a body horror enthusiast best known at the time for a movie about psychics exploding heads could make a major motion picture. It was even more of a financial success than its predecessor, topping the US box office for two weeks straight and earning over $40 million. Odder still, it was a critical success, gathering positive reviews like, well, flies and even rumors of a Best Actor nomination from the Academy for star Jeff Goldblum that sadly did not pan out.
But what is it about these two movies that so captured audiences and has lodged The Fly into the collective memory so firmly? At the core of both, it’s a simple cautionary tale: a scientist delves into that which man should not know and suffers the consequence. It’s a story literally as old as science fiction itself; the same synopsis could be used to describe the very first science fiction story, Frankenstein. Something about the specifics of the core accident of The Fly speak to the repellence of the inhuman next the human, the convergence of everything we find disgusting about the insect kingdom into our world. Even more, at its base it may be the abhorrence of the encroach of the irrational beast into the pure ambitions of science. It’s worth noting that one of the few elements that remain between the two films is the respective scientists’ slow succumbing to the insect domination that has infected them.
Otherwise, the two takes on The Fly seem more like funhouse mirror versions of the same plot than note-for-note remakes. In the 1958 version, the scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) is a relatively minor character, unseen for most of the film; he is defined by his experiments to transport matter, not by his personality. In the 1986 version, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a far more nuanced character, given to jealousy, pride and, by the end, insanity and desperation. Delambre is a scientist of good reputation, motivated simply by the desire for knowledge and an altruistic hope for humanity, a 1950s vision of science harnessed for the good of all; his mistake is simply not noticing that a fly has entered the transportation chamber. Brundle, on the other hand, is an isolated man working on something people think is crazy and/or impossible, and his accident is the result of drunkenness and a chip on his shoulder over his reporter girlfriend Veronica (Geena Davis). In the original, the bulk of the movie is spent hiding Delambre’s transformation, leaving a horrifying reveal of his now monstrous face at the climax. Brundle’s slow alteration into a fly/human hybrid is the whole point of the later movie, showing a man slowly change in body and mind as his new self becomes something other. Even a minor plot point is tellingly similar but askew: in the 1958, a cat is lost in the ether of space through a transporter, a haunting yowl being its only remnant, but in 1986, a baboon is graphically turned inside out. If there’s a difference between 1950s horror and that of the ‘80s, it’s found in that significant shift. The original is a cautionary tale about the dangers of well-meaning science, not terribly different from Godzilla or Forbidden Planet, while the remake is an examination of a diseased body in science fiction trapping.
What’s also notable in looking at the two side by side (and perhaps what’s kept them memorable over the decades) is that they are very unusual, even as horror movies. The 1958 version predated slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th, movies that changed what horror meant. Nowadays, viewers watching horror films are used to scares every few minutes, something to keep them on the edge of their seat. The original The Fly, in contrast, is a slow, deliberate movie opening at the end of the narrative action and then largely consisting of a flashback narrated by the scientist’s wife Helene (Patricia Owens) and a brief coda back to the original timeframe. It’s an unusual way to structure a film, one that would not likely fly as a method of titillation these days. Similarly, though the 1986 version was a blockbuster, it’s a body horror film, not a violent one. Cronenberg has never been as much in the public eye as he was during this film, but he didn’t tone down his signature graphic touch much for public consumption. Just like the original film, it’s not a horror movie in the popular mode, regardless of how popular it became. The grotesquerie comes from Delambre becoming the Fly, Brundle morphing into Brundlefly, not from acts of horror. In fact, that’s the essence of both movies, different as they are: it is not what the monster does that is horrifying, it is what the monster is.